Netanyahu says virus restrictions could be reimposed as infections climb

As some malls, high school classes reopen, PM says country in danger of coronavirus surge if action not taken immediately

People shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on November 27, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on November 27, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday that Israel may halt moves to ease the nationwide lockdown and may even put more restrictions into place, as the nation continues to see virus numbers rise.

His warning came as Israel continued to lift rules put in place two months ago, including sending high school students back to class, even as the daily COVID-19 caseload has topped 1,000 in recent days.

Netanyahu said Israel is better placed than other developed countries experiencing a second wave now, but “I’m telling you straight, we are in danger if we do not act immediately.”

“If there is a need, we will stop the easing and even tighten those [steps] that have already been made,” the prime minister said, urging citizens to stick to social distancing and mask-wearing rules.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a news conference in Jerusalem, November 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

Top health officials have warned of rising morbidity, even as the government pushes on with rolling back lockdown restrictions.

Around 400,000 Israeli high schoolers returned to the classroom on Sunday morning after a break of nearly two months. Under the Health Ministry’s plan, students will have at least two days a week of in-person studying, with distance learning on the remaining days.

Restrictions dividing students into separate study groups mean that teachers will be permitted to come in contact with up to four groups of students, and the students themselves to move between only two groups. High school principals have warned that the regulations mean that the majority of studies for individual subjects will therefore have to continue remotely.

The return of high schoolers to the classroom came as the Health Ministry on Sunday evening said 573 new coronavirus cases were confirmed the previous day. It said another 557 cases were recorded from midnight. New daily case numbers are typically lower on Saturdays as testing levels fall over the weekend.

Hospital team members move patients to a new coronavirus ward at Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem, November 16, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Of the 17,174 tests performed Saturday, 3.3 percent came back positive. As recently as Wednesday, the positivity rate stood at 1.8%. The number has recently tended to rise during weekends and then go down.

The reduced number of cases came after three straight days on which new daily infections topped 1,000, after remaining below that milestone for over a month.

The number of infections since the pandemic began stood at 335,453, of which 9,601 were active cases.

The death toll stood at 2,864, up by 10 fatalities since the morning.

According to the ministry, there were 263 people in serious condition, with 92 on ventilators. Another 82 people were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Saturday addressed the reopening of 15 malls around the country a day earlier as part of a plan to evaluate their compliance with social-distancing guidelines. The openings drew large crowds of shoppers who waited in line to enter stores.

People shop at the Ayalon Mall in Ramat Gan after it reopened, November 27, 2020 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

“What we saw yesterday in the pictures is very grave and could lead to infection,” Ash said. “I hope we won’t have to shutter this pilot because of these pictures.”

He called on mall operators “to act responsibly” and prevent crowding.

The comments came after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Friday that he had instructed Ash and Chezy Levy, the director-general of the Health Ministry, to meet Saturday evening after the “serious crowding at malls… and in light of the rising morbidity figures.”

The officials will present him with their conclusions at the start of the week and Edelstein will then formulate his position, the statement added.

“I’m really worried this is another issue that could increase morbidity,” Levy said in an interview with Kan news Friday. “We’ll have to think about whether to continue the pilot and how.”

Malls have been closed — except for certain essential stores within them, such as pharmacies or food sellers — since mid-September under lockdown rules. Street-front stores were allowed to reopen earlier this month, with a cap on the number of customers, which was raised from four to 10 on Wednesday.

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